PASADENA, Calif. - Billy Idol still wants his MTV.
Hey, I'm not going to tell him he can't have it. No way.
Idol shakes the press conference's lectern, and his face says it all - he's still a young, irreverent punk icon. He looks at what might be a written speech or press release, crumples it up and throws it away. Idol hasn't aged or changed much in the last 20 years; his hair seems about the same. He's still dressed all in black.
And he seems pretty relaxed about MTV's 20th anniversary. That makes him a refreshing presence at this three-week marathon of press conferences and parties - the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. Networks have been trying all month to build excitement as they present stars and producers to plug the new programs.
In the midst of all this hype, Idol is candid, low-key and funny.
"I'm the only one who could get up this early," Idol said at the noon press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel. He was referring to all the rock stars who will appear on "MTV20: Live and Almost Legal."
The network's 20th anniversary celebration airs from 8 to 11 p.m. EDT/PDT Wednesday. (It will be repeated at 11.) The special will air after "MTV20: Buggles to Bizkit," a 12-hour marathon of videos from throughout MTV's history. The video fest will begin at 8 a.m. EDT/PDT Wednesday. The performers will vary from Buggles to Blondie, Devo, U2, Michael Jackson, MC Hammer and Britney Spears.
Wednesday night's concert/party, airing live on the East Coast and tape-delayed for the West, will feature performances by Idol, Mariah Carey, a reunited TLC, Jane's Addiction, Method Man, Mary J. Blige, SUM-41, RUN-DMC, Busta Rhymes, The Neptunes, Bon Jovi, Nelly, Depeche Mode, Blink-182, Aerosmith and Sugar Ray. Count on some rap medleys, Idol said.
Carson Daly and all of MTV's on-air talent will host the party. Various VJs (the network's equivalent of DJs) from throughout its history will appear, including the five original VJs: Martha Quinn, JJ Jackson, Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood and Mark Goodman.
Idol and his videos were a big presence on MTV in the 1980s. And in commercials to recruit viewers and cable systems, he adamantly said, "I want my MTV." Today, Idol credits MTV for boosting his career.
"Yeah, MTV - I've got to admit that when I came to America, it was just as punk was dying in England, and in America, it hadn't really taken off," he said. "And it was very difficult getting records onto the radio in America. I was able to get onto 'Solid Gold' and a few other programs like that. But getting onto American radio was extremely hard."
Idol's single "Hot in the City" placed 18th on the American charts; it didn't have his picture on it. When the Idol anthem "White Wedding" came out, his photo was on the cover. Idol said radio stations refused to play the single because they refused to play punk rock.
"So the great thing about MTV was it came along at a time when people like me, to get our music played, we needed a new platform, something that would give us a national platform as well," Idol said. "And that's what MTV did. And then once the people out there - kids or whoever it is - saw the videos, liked the music, then they phoned up the radio people and forced those kind of local stations or whoever to play our music."
MTV is part of the MTV Networks corporation, which today includes sister networks VH1, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, TV Land, TNN (The National Network) and CMT (Country Music Television). Viacom, the media giant that owns CBS and Paramount Pictures, is the parent company of MTV Networks.
MTV achieved its knack for creativity and storytelling with videos by performers such as Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Paula Abdul and Madonna.
My favorite videos include those by Talking Heads and by Peter Gabriel ("Sledgehammer"). And while I haven't been a big fan of Phil Collins' music since he left Genesis, his early MTV videos were imaginative. But cable music networks have led to the risk of bands writing songs for the video instead of the ear.
I think that's why much of today's music, especially Spears' songs, tend to focus more on the beat than the melodies. Her music is designed for dancers on a sound stage full of smoke, special effects and stunts.
The video influence on music is nothing new, Idol said. "Well, really, if you look at rock and roll history, there's always been video clips or music clips or film clips with music.
"I mean, if you go back to Elvis films, there's Elvis singing 'Jailhouse Rock.' So I think all that happened was that MTV was able to focus music at a time when the radio had a stranglehold on what people were listening to.
"I loved people like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls. I learned a lot from American rock and roll. Today, yeah, there's lots of great music today. I know there's been this sort of boy band thing. There's always been that."
Idol, who went from singing to acting, recently did voiceover work in an animated Heavy Metal magazine movie.
"I just did a Priceline.com," he joked, referring to the ads that made William Shatner (Capt. Kirk) infamous. The critics laughed.
Billy, don't change.
(Dave Mason is television editor of the Ventura County Star in California. You can reach him at masoninsidevc.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)
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